If there ever were a time to bet on Black people, it is now. Birthed in large part by the senseless killing of George Floyd and bolstered by the blood of countless others, this is a moment America has never before seen; a moment adeptly annexed by major corporations and marquee brands to affirm — or start anew — their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
The unwary or casual student of history might think to equate today with the affirmative action era, itself a uniquely American antecedent. And the confederate caustics among us might want to scream Reconstruction redux. But both would miss the point. While relevant, there are two dramatic differences between then and now.
First, today’s response to the BLM and social justice movements has been led entirely by the private sector. Governments at all levels have remained interested but uninvolved. And second, the BLM movement has been multi-ethnic and multi-generational — supported by White, Hispanic, Asian and European allies throughout the globe — a living testament to our global interdependence and connectedness.
We now know that the world is watching, learning and judging how America handles what noted scholar W.E.B. Dubois in 1903 called “the problem of the color line.” Apropos of our 2020 ethos, it is fitting that the response to the same problem is now measured by the millions on corporate checks and not the morals of American leaders. What a difference a hundred years makes.
The amount of money being pledged to programs, businesses and organizations led by or focused on African Americans has been impressive by any standard. Blue chip corporations like Comcast, Microsoft, Google, Bank of America, Nike, AT&T, Target, Walmart, Sony, Verizon and others, along with celebrities and wealthy individuals, have made multi-year, multimillion-dollar commitments to BLM and allied organizations. It seems that $100 million has become the de rigueur standard for both media and corporate cred in today’s high-stakes skin game.
A good many social media naysayers suggest that corporate pledges reflect little more than White guilt and should be viewed with suspicion — particularly money from companies with thin records on diversity. They also say that a multi-year pledge of $150 million is small relative to their earnings.
But let’s be real here: when was the last time any big company pledged this amount of money to anything but building its own bottom line? The overwhelming financial response by companies is a plea not only for the hearts and minds of Black folks but for their money too. White guilt or not, the corporate pledges are a recognition of an ever-present market reality. Not only do Black lives matter, but so too do Black dollars. And that is worth examining.
Consider a few compelling data points, courtesy of Nielsen, which measures demographics, spending and consumption among other big data categories.
As of 2018, there were over 48 million Black Americans, with nearly 25 million in the millennial age or younger. "With a median age of 32, Black Americans are just now approaching their peak earning years but are already dominating industries from music to fashion...The influence of African American consumers is extensive — driven by their tech affinity, passion for sharing experiences and powered by their omnichannel thirst for information and recommendations," Nielsen reports.
Black buying power grew, according to Nielsen, "from $320 billion in 1990 to $1.3 trillion in 2018. Between 2000 and 2018, Black buying power rose 114%, compared to an 89% increase in White buying power. Texas now has the largest population of African Americans and tops the nation in African American buying power."
"African Americans over-index the total population for most genres of apps, including search engines, entertainment, electronics, government and non-profit apps," according to Nielsen. Black Americans are avid media consumers that spend more time with television, TV-connected devices, radio, video on computers, web apps on smartphones and web apps on tablets than the general population. They over-index on YouTube and Netflix by 12 and 19 points, respectively.
Marketers know, or should know, that Nielsen finds that, "African Americans love the latest trends" and are more likely than the total population to rely on "advertising to provide meaningful information about products they use."
Nielsen also finds that 40% of Black consumers say, "they are the first among their friends to try new products and services, surpassing the total population by 29%." And most relevant for social justice concerns, Nielsen determines 42% of African Americans "expect brands they buy to support social causes" — 16% more than the general population.
As voracious media consumers across multiple channels, Black Americans are the "largest consumers of TV with over 11 hours more each week using television compared to the total population," according to Nielsen.
Nielsen also points out that while "TV usage decreased in the last year, 'internet on the go' is increasing with more time spent on video, audio and social networking than the total population on both smartphones and tablets. Black consumers are creating their own video, audio and digital app platforms that allow them to express their aspirations and support for companies that meet their consumer demands."
African Americans have contributed mightily to the development of America ever since the first slaves arrived in Point Comfort near Jamestown, Va., in 1619. Unquestionably, America would not be the powerful nation it is without Blacks, despite two and a half centuries of political oppression and economic exclusion supported by statute, civil society and social custom. While there has been immense progress, there is yet a long way to go.
As leading banks, retailers, technology firms and more develop commercial strategies to connect with Black consumers, it makes sense to commit millions upon millions of dollars to embrace universal principles of equity and respect. In that context, the decision by major companies to bet on Black is not just a roll-of-the-dice or knee-jerk response to social justice. At best, it is a prudent embrace of conscious capitalism and at worst a timely effort to clean the corporate slate. In either case, there is nothing wrong with that.